Pulling the oversized shopping cart to a screeching stop, Tifa inspected the overfull tables and shelves in front of her. The supermarket was too crowded, the air was too humid, and Tifa could think about approximately a billion places she'd rather be. Locked to that chair in the execution chamber in Junon, for example.
'Damn this! Why does it always has to be me buying all the birthday presents?'
Stupid rhetorical questions. She knew the answer. She was too nice; that had always been her problem. For the billionth time or so, Tifa considered telling her companions to do something themselves for a change.
'Yeah, as if that's gonna happen any time this millennium. Might as well tell Cloud to get over Aeris - or why not make Cid use proper language. Hah.' She sniggered. Some things never changed, so she might as well spare herself the effort and just forget about them.
'I should be happy Midgar is rebuilt, though. This way I won't have to go all around the Planet to look for a present. I might have disapproved of Shinra' - a minor understatement - 'but they sure did a great job bringing all the businesses here.'
Yeah, Shinra may have been one of the worst things that ever happened to the Planet, but they'd done wonders in helping advancing the technology. Even if the reason for their research had been to further their grip over the rest of the world, some of the results had actually proven to be beneficial to ordinary people.
Which brought Tifa back to the birthday shopping mission again, because one of the things Cloud wanted the most right now - except for Aeris of course, whom she couldn't find on a shelf even if she wanted to - was a video game.
He had read about a beat'em'up called 'Ehrgeiz' in a gaming magazine, and now he couldn't stop talking about it. Well, the game did star Cloud himself, Tifa, and a few other celebrities in minor roles for some obscure reason, so it wasn't that odd that he wanted to try it out.
Not that they'd been asked for permission, or even told about the existence of the game before the review, of course. They were the "saviors of the world" now; heroes, and thus public property. Another thing she'd just have to accept.
Somehow, word had gotten out that Cloud and his friends were responsible of getting rid of that meteor. There were a lot of rumors going around about them now, and amazingly enough, some of them were even true.
There were only a few persons on the planet that knew the entire story of what had happened, of course. The general populace had no clue - didn't really need to know - that the old war champion Sephiroth had gone completely bonkers and were in fact the one that had summoned the horrible magic. Such a story would've been too implausible even for the craziest tabloid - even the kind that didn't hesitate before printing stories like Tifa Lockhart carrying Rufus Shinra's children! Or for that matter Cloud to marry dead girlfriend's corpse - not that that particular story had been very far to the truth, though.
Hence, the game even starred Sephiroth - not as that god-like, half alien freak of nature that AVALANCHE had fought, but in one of the good-guy roles. To the people, he was still the unbeatable hero from the Shinra-Wutai war.
Sephiroth's unwilling participation was probably one of the reasons Cloud wanted this particular addition to his gaming library. Tifa suspected that her friend wanted to relive the glorious moment when Sephiroth finally fell by his sword.
Or, she supposed, he wanted a chance to slap Yuffie around. She giggled, oddly inspired by the images forming in her mind. 'I can't say I haven't felt tempted, myself. Ehrgeiz it is then.'
She spent a few minutes locating the game. There were piles upon piles of software here, everything from old word processing programs for the C64 to the latest PSX shooters. A part of her was thoroughly impressed by the wide range - it couldn't have been easy nor cheap to find all that ancient stuff - but she didn't have time to linger. And computers and video games weren't really her strong point, even if she did know more about them than the general crowd, thanks to Jessie.
Someone was staring at her again - she had learned to recognize that itchy feeling between her shoulders. Tifa sighed. Time to leave. She seemed to attract a crowd wherever she went, nowadays. Especially pubescent boys, for reasons not really unknown.
'Ah. There we go. One copy of Ehrgeiz, thank you.' She grabbed the game and tucked it in between the other presents - the Masamune-shaped key chain from Yuffie, the literature classics that Red had picked out, and other carefully chosen gifts. Even the Turks were represented; they'd asked Tifa to buy Cloud "one of those mini-fridges, and fill it with booze. He needs it." Tifa had silently agreed.
The fridge was already at home, wrapped in navy-blue paper (of course) and hidden under an old, moth-eaten blanket in a dusty corner in the basement. She'd picked up a few bottles of the strong stuff her old customers always ordered the night after payday and they were now standing against one of the sides of the cart, clinking against each other as she moved around.
After paying for the game ('but they should've sent us a few copies for free, since they're probably making loads of money off us') and the other gifts, Tifa started walking towards the parking lot.
Maybe she should try the game herself... err... Just to make sure it functioned properly. Yeah.
Tifa was brutally awakened from her somewhat unfriendly daydreams when a pack of black-clad teen-aged girls chanting something incomprehensible bumped into her, almost causing her to drop her bags. The girls continued striding ahead without even a glance at her. Tifa frowned, her eyes narrowing. Her first impulse to run after them and give them a piece of her mind faded, when she realized that there was something unpleasantly familiar about the way they looked... almost like...
She didn't have time to finish that thought. A strong, gloved hand suddenly clasped her mouth while the other locked her arms painfully behind her back. She tried to break loose, but her attacker was simply too strong. Seemingly accepting the inevitable, Tifa let herself be dragged into an alley. She had a few tricks up her sleeves, though. The assailant would have to release her arms eventually, she figured. He might be stronger then her, but she had a surprise for him. 'I wonder what he'll think about my Final Heaven', she thought, smiling inwardly.
When she finally was set free, she turned around to kick his most sensitive spot. Her legs failed her though, when she recognized the person ahead of her.
She sank down to the ground, teeth chattering from the sudden fear that filled her veins.
Fighting was the very last thing on her mind right now.
"B-b-but..." she finally stuttered, desperately attempting to make her paralyzed limbs work again. "I... I saw you... Cloud... Aren't you... dead?" 'Duh. That's really intelligent, Teef. '
Sephiroth smiled bitterly. "Obviously not."
He gallantly extended a hand to help the frightened woman up. When she didn't move, he frowned and grabbed her wrist. "Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt you."
Sephiroth pulled her up surprisingly gently. By now, Tifa had regained some of her composure. She crossed her arms defensively over her chest and examined her former adversary. Aside from the obvious fact that he shouldn't even be alive, something certainly seemed to be bothering him. The grip on his Masamune was too tight, as if he wanted to be able to draw the sword quickly but tensed up like that, he wouldn't be able to fight very well. His eyes were darting back and forth, trying to inspect everything around the pair at once. He was even ever so slightly chewing his lower lip.
'Yeah, something is definitely bothering him,' she concluded with a sinking feeling in her stomach what could possibly make Sephiroth of all people feel uncomfortable? Well, no way to find out without waiting for his explanation. She swallowed soundly and nodded for him to speak.
Clearly satisfied by Tifa's reaction, the silver-haired man gradually relaxed. "I am fully aware of the fact that we haven't been the best of friends", he stated.
'Really? That's a slight understatement.' Tifa opened her mouth to reply, but Sephiroth held up his hand to prevent her from talking.
"I need your help, Lockheart. I need a place to hide for a while."
* * * * *
Sephiroth stubbornly refused to explain why he needed Tifa's assistance. Clearly impatient he finally promised to tell more about his situation once they got to a safer place, though it was obvious he'd rather not say another word about it if he could avoid it.
Naturally, Tifa didn't trust him at all, but she eventually agreed to bring him to a somewhat more secluded spot.
'Otherwise he'll drive that nasty thing right through me, I guess.' Shifting slightly away from Sephiroth, she glanced at the enormous weapon. She unconsciously lifted her hand up to the area on her chest where a huge scar would forever blemish her. 'That sword is huge. How can he move around so easily carrying... that, anyway?'
Tifa thrust one of her shopping bags to Sephiroth, who looked displeased. He accepted the charge once he realized that the woman wouldn't be able to move quickly and silently while carrying all that extra weight.
They sneaked through the dark alleyways ever so carefully, hiding in the shadows wherever they could. At every corner, Sephiroth froze and sensed the area around him before he allowed them to continue.
Until they were a few meters away from parking lot containing Tifa's car and its relative safety.
Abruptly grabbing her arm, Sephiroth suddenly forced Tifa to a halt. "Silence!" he hissed through clenched teeth. His pale face had turned even whiter, and small droplets of sweat were starting to form on his forehead.
Tifa promptly obeyed, cautiously looking around. To be honest, she couldn't see anything nearby that would be able to frighten the mighty soldier. On the other side of the road, the chanting girls she'd "gotten acquainted with" earlier just stepped out from a doorway, but that was it.
On second glance, they seemed to be in pursuit of something, though.
'Wait a minute... What is it they're singing? Something that sounds like... Sephiroth?'
She turned around to look at the man in question again. He was nervously chewing his lower lip again, while his eyes followed the teenagers.
'He's afraid of them? I can't believe this!'
Finally the girls seemed satisfied that there wasn't anything interesting here. One of them still appeared to doubt. She started towards the alley where Tifa were standing, but the rest of the group stopped her. Whatever it was they were hunting, they would have to look for it someplace else. They turned towards the shopping center and rapidly marched away, their black cloaks flapping after them.
Behind her, Sephiroth started breathing again, and finally released the death-grip on her arm. She shook it a few seconds to help the blood start circulating again, grimacing at the red marks his grip left.
"Well, let's continue," Tifa told him. Her voice somehow carried much more confidence than she felt at the moment, but her self-assurance rapidly rose as she realized that Sephiroth didn't pose a threat - not at the moment, at least.
She quickly followed her own instruction, and didn't wait for Sephiroth to acknowledge the order. After a few steps she heard him trailing her carefully.
'So those girls are somehow the key to this oddness? Interesting.' For some reason she wasn't as afraid any more. That annoying part of her brain that always seemed to get her in trouble had kicked in again, and now she could hardly wait until she could hear the full story.
* * * * *
At last they reached Tifa's car. It must have taken them twenty minutes to reach it; every second spent in tense nervousness not to mention insatiable curiosity from Tifa's side.
Sephiroth collapsed in the backseat after gently making room for the sword. It was a tight fit, and at last he had to settle for letting the tip stick out through the window. Tifa raised an eyebrow but didn't say anything. She turned the key and drove out from the parking place, heading towards the road leading out from Midgar. The highway to Junon wasn't very fun to drive even on a good day. It would take at least one and a half hour to get home, and most of that time would be spent in the newly built tunnel cutting a straight north-south passageway through and under the mountain range splitting the continent in two parts.
What she didn't do to get nice birthday presents for her friends. She sniggered, for a moment forgetting her unwelcome passenger.
Sephiroth didn't react anyway. He was still shaken up by whatever it was that had gotten him desperate enough to ask for Tifa's help, and he just sat in the backseat with his eyes closed, breathing deeply.
After half an hour or so of uncomfortable silence, the would-be-god finally sat up, his arrogant mien returning as if nothing had happened.
Tifa didn't buy it. With her newfound confidence, due the fact that she'd seen him terrified, she even dared acting on it.
"We've gotten away from those girls now," she said, outwardly disinterested. With a satisfied grin she noted that Sephiroth's smile faltered, if only for a microsecond.
"Who are they?" she pressed. "You promised you'd explain, and this place is safe enough. "
Sephiroth didn't seem too eager to break his silence, but after a few pointed glares from Tifa - not to mention her not-too-subtle threats of driving him back to the shopping center and let him deal with his problems himself - he reluctantly started telling his story.
"I don't remember anything of what happened after my death," he begun, slowly. "One moment, I felt my heart being pierced by that half-witted SOLDIER reject..."
'Cloud wouldn't be too happy to hear that,' Tifa thought with a smirk. 'Or, well, maybe he would. I don't know what to think of him these days anyway...' Her smile faded into something more melancholic as her mind began poking at that familiar source of pain once again.
Sephiroth grunted. Tifa glanced in the rear-view mirror only to find that her passenger was watching her with a most curious look in his eyes. When their eyes met, he frowned. "Did you want to hear the story or not?"
'Guess who's used to being the center of attention...' Tifa grinned again. "Sorry. Please go on."
"Hnn." Sephiroth made a show of finding a more comfortable position before continuing.
"As I said; one moment Strife... killed me." He frowned again. "The next thing I knew, I was lying naked on a seashore surrounded by those children you saw. I heard them talking; I couldn't hear what they said, but they were obviously arguing about something. When I decided to open my eyes to find out what the ruckus was about, they screamed.
"One of them, presumably the leader, was holding a huge, white sphere above my head. Some kind of Materia I believe, but I don't think I've ever seen a white one before. She almost dropped it when I stirred. I assume that most of them never really believed that their 'magic' would achieve its purpose. When they realized that they had indeed accomplished to resurrect me, order was slowly restored. The leader introduced herself and her little assemblage. They call themselves 'Sephiroth's Priestesses'."
He sighed deeply, shaking his head at their foolishness. Tifa couldn't stop herself from smirking at that; that corner of her mouth had a life of its own sometimes.
"They said that they would help me become a god, " Sephiroth continued. "That it was my destiny to rule the universe. I can't for the life of me understand why, since my behavior was rather odd when Jenova controlled me..." He grimaced, a faint disgust surfacing in his eyes.
"Anyway, each and every one of them is positively sure that she is the woman of my dreams, the one who would be my 'queen'. They never let me be alone; there was always someone with me, trying to manipulate me into promising her a place by my side. "
With a faint smile on his lips, he continued, refusing to look at Tifa. His cheeks were reddening slightly, which for some reason made Tifa feel more comfortable around him. The Great Sephiroth was a human too, who would've thought?
"You know, I feel utterly absurd saying things like this," he suddenly grinned, "but you should've heard them."
Tifa had a hard time remaining calm. "Please continue", she said, hiding her laughter behind a dry cough. 'Still idolized, despite all that he's done. All those kids who admired him so long ago... '
He nodded. "They said that they completely understood why I had acted the way I did, and that it was 'okay'. Since I am a descendent of Jenova, I have every right to rule the Planet. As long as they would be allowed to rule under me, I presume. Fortunately, Mother's influence over me is now... gone. I have no wish becoming a god. Even being a ruler of any kind seems far too bothersome, if I am to be completely honest with you. And why do they think I would be interested in teenagers that are half my age or less?"
'Jenova's influence is gone? So that's why his behavior has changed so dramatically...' Tifa shook her head to clear her thoughts. Something was still very, very strange about this whole situation.
"I still haven't learned why you're afraid of them. They're just children, what could they do? I mean, you can handle Materia better than anyone alive, and you've got that big sword of yours too. " She glanced at the Masamune and shivered. "And how do they know about Jenova anyway? Her existence isn't exactly common knowledge."
"Well... Eh... One of those girls... " It was odd hearing Sephiroth stuttering. It seemed very out-of-character.
"She was not the leader, " he continued, "but they were very close. I couldn't seem to think straight around her." Noticing Tifa's big grin, he quickly continued with a faint blush on his face.
"No, no, it's not like that. Not at all. It was... When she was near, I started having bizarre thoughts and ideas again. I can almost swear I heard Mother speaking to me when I was drifting off to sleep with that female nearby.
"I think... I think that girl also was one of Hojo's creations. I felt a strange connection to her, and it made me very... susceptible to her inclinations. It took me a while to find out, though, but when I did, I immediately started planning my escape." He shifted uncomfortably. "You probably don't see me as the right person to judge, but those children are outright insane. I don't know what they could have made me do, but I hardly think they are at all harmless without me either."
The story was far-fetched, but nevertheless she was almost beginning to feel sorry for the man. His mother was a dead alien who wanted to take over the world and his father an insane scientist with the same plans. To be honest, it was a wonder he had managed to stay lucid as long is he had. 'And those girls... If Sephiroth is telling the truth, they need to be stopped before they harm anyone.'
As a matter of fact, the story had made her a trifle uncomfortable. One maniac controlled by Jenova was quite enough, and if this story was true, now there were a whole batch of them. With the power to command Sephiroth, no less.
'Damn it, I've almost decided to help him. This is just crazy. I'm actually going to help the man that killed my father and burned my hometown. Not only that, I will help him hide from a bunch of girls who are probably no more insane than anyone of my friends.' Not that that said anything about sanity, of course; everybody she knew seemed to be at least a little bit mixed up in that apartment.
She shook her head. Now she was digressing again.
'But... this isn't the same Sephiroth that did all those awful things," she realized. 'Jenova was controlling him. I mean, Cloud tried to kill Aeris when he was possessed, but no one is blaming him for that now. Well, no one except himself, but that's not the point. I... damn, what should I do?'
'Everybody deserves a second chance.'
'Well, why the hell not.'
"Alright. I'll help you," she said hastily, crossing her fingers hoping this was the right decision. 'I'll deal with those "priestesses" first. Then I'll think about what we should do about Sephiroth. I'd need a bit more help to kick his ass anyway, so it'd be stupid to cross him now.'
'And now you're trying to justify your decision to yourself, Teef? You'll have to try harder, 'cause that wasn't convincing at all.'
Sephiroth smiled, and something that almost could be interpreted as gratefulness flickered through his eyes. Apparently mind reading wasn't one of his special skills, or he wouldn't look so almost-happy.
'I wish he wouldn't smile like that. He's too attractive... hey, what am I thinking? Am I the one being manipulated now?' She closed her eyes a fraction of a second, and tried to project the image of Cloud on the inside of her eyelids. That ought to make her focus, she figured.
It didn't quite succeed, though. The first thing that came to her mind, for some reason, was Cloud and Aeris heading out from the Golden Saucer inn on their first date. 'Damn. I didn't need that right now, thankyouverymuch.' However, the unpleasant thought had made her realize something important.
"Oh. I think I'll wait with telling the others about you," she blurted out. "Somehow I don't think Cloud would appreciate seeing you. Especially since it's his birthday tomorrow. Luckily I have a place of my own where you can stay for a while. I'll try to prepare them for the... err... surprise. But I think we will need their help in dealing with your... 'fan club.'"
Sephiroth nodded thoughtfully. Neither of them could think of something more to say after that, so they settled into a more or less comfortable silence.
' We will need their help? Oh Tifa, what have you gotten yourself into this time?' She let out a great sigh. This time she didn't notice that Sephiroth was observing her again. She just wanted to get home, get some rest, and get back to her ordinary life.
Appropriately enough, at that, they entered Junon. The sun was setting and the streetlights were blinking on one by one as Tifa drove by, almost as if they were welcoming her home.